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Mario Puzo’s first novel was published in 1955, ten years after World War Two ended. Still startling, still riveting, The Dark Arena evokes a scabrous, corrupt underworld of jaded American soldiers on Occupation Army duty in postwar Germany.Puzo had served with the 4th Armored Division in France and Germany during the war and then worked a postwar civilian job for the U.S. War Department, spending nearly another two years in what was then West Germany. He married a German woman and they moved to America at the end of the 1940s. The future author of The Godfather was in every way a product of his times.

In that era, one wartime subject was largely taboo. It was scarcely broached in academe. Rarely did any movie, novel, or play come close to hinting at it. Although there were hundreds of new films and books and articles about the war in Europe that were widely seen or read in the decade after World War Two, hardly any confronted the issue of the Holocaust, which would not be commonly referred to by that term (with the “h” in “holocaust”—defined by Webster’s as “a sacrifice consumed by fire”—always capitalized) until decades later.Figuratively speaking, the mass media and the public at large had buried both the revelatory issues of LIFE Magazine and the concomitant newsreels from 1945. A definite policy of willful amnesia was invoked. Thus it was unusual and brave of Puzo to create in The Dark Arena the character of Leo. He is a secondary character in the novel, but in certain chapters and throughout critical scenes, his presence is vital. And his words are crucial. As a survivor of Buchenwald who is open to answering rudimentary questions about the concentration camps when he’s conversing with Walter Mosca or a handful of the occupation troops with whom Mosca surrounds himself, Leo and his thoughts carry a great deal of weight.

Not only was Buchenwald one of the camps that American Army soldiers liberated in April 1945, it was also one of the camps that by name and also by a surfeit of horrific newsreel images had infiltrated the American psyche. Legendary radio newscaster Edward R. Murrow was at Buchenwald shortly after its liberation, and he broadcast a special radio program heard nationwide, describing in detail the ghastly netherworld discovered by the GIs.The U.S. Army Signal Corps had filmed a tremendous amount of what was found at Buchenwald: skeletal survivors in unspeakable distress; corpses piled high and left to rot; the crematoria. But the photos in LIFE Magazine had been so graphic that many subscribers hid the magazine from their children when “those pictures” were published. Yet, now and then, in the first decade after the Second World War, a grim reminder emerged in the culture.There was a singular work of nonfiction that became a bestseller for a brief time circa 1950: The Theory and Practice of Hell (by Eugen Kogon) was a unique book that explicated not only how Buchenwald had functioned and “worked” as a concentration camp, but also educated Americans (and all other readers) by reminding them that the site was a labor camp for political prisoners before the war began, and then evolved (like Dachau) into a more nefarious abyss of torture, slave labor, medical experiments, and murder by the time the war peaked in 1944-1945.

Buchenwald’s lengthy history was also alluded to in Puzo’s novel, time after time, when either Walter Mosca or Leo (the camp survivor) remind others that Leo had spent eight years incarcerated there.  Those “eight years” stressed in the novel correctly define the chronological history of Buchenwald, which operated near Weimar between 1937 and 1945–in full view of the local townspeople, of course, which was another aspect of Buchenwald’s history that Puzo raised in The Dark Arena.The most important aspect of Leo’s role in the story is his discerning intelligence.  In the novel, he is admired for his willingness and ability to go testify against former German officers at the Nuremberg trials. Leo is not presented as a stock sympathetic character nor as a pathetic victim, although it’s made clear that his experience sets him apart from that of the others.  Without invoking flashbacks to the atrocities of the concentration camps, it’s still ascertained that even compared to the combat-hardened background of some of the other characters, Leo is different. One night, in the company of Walter Mosca and a few others (where the beer is flowing), there’s a flash of anger when Mosca says: “The guy was in the camp for a long time. Don’t you know what that means, for Christ’s sake?”Puzo’s choice to specify Buchenwald and to have the name repeated in the novel was provocative in the 1950s. It was also a choice rooted in Puzo’s wartime past. One of the reasons the 4th Armored Division was a standout juggernaut in the final months of World War Two in Europe is that the 4th AD was the first American Army unit to discover and to liberate a concentration camp.On April 4, 1945, at a slave-labor camp called Ohrdruf, soldiers of the 4th AD were filmed in the company of Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley, all three of whom toured the grounds of Ohrdruf, which was a sub-camp of Buchenwald. Although obscure and small, the human detritus and grotesque evidence at Ohrdruf were grim enough to instantly galvanize Eisenhower, who ordered the U.S. Army Signal Corps to film everything. Not just at Ohrdruf, but wherever such camps were found. One week later, not far from Ohrdruf, the larger and even more disorienting Buchenwald was liberated.That name alone had come to symbolize the unspeakable for many Americans. It’s now quite impossible, though, to convey how quickly the topic of the camps was erased from the public’s mind in the years after the war. The vivid newsreels were archived. The magazines were bound and stacked on dusty library shelves. There was a universal resistance in all the media—films, books, radio, and plays—to any evocation of the memories sure to be revived by any story or image recalling the striped uniforms or stacked corpses; the barbed wire, ovens, and smoking chimneys.In the early 1950s The Diary of Anne Frank was rejected by American publishers all across the board, until Judith Jones at Doubleday saw its value. Otherwise, the coming-of-age chronicle left behind by the teenage Jewish girl hiding in the attic (and who was doomed to be discovered by the Nazis, sent to Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen, where she died) was a literary document that caused publishers to recoil and refuse it outright.One senior editor at Vanguard summed up as follows: “Under the present frame of mind of the American public, you cannot publish a book with war as a background.” And another editor at Alfred A. Knopf rejected The Diary of Anne Frank with this brush-off: “Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely . . . I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”This postwar state of denial and the suppression of bad memories (which invite such denial) were succinctly expressed by another editor’s observation that The Wall, a new novel by John Hersey based on the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, wasn’t “doing as well as expected.”  And one of that editor’s colleagues spoke for an industry-wide policy when explaining that readers would “avert their eyes from so painful a story which would bring back to them all the evil events that occurred during the war.”This makes Puzo’s accomplishment even more admirable.  To breach the wall of such resistance in New York publishing was no small feat.  And, like it or not, The Dark Arena invariably conjured up “all the evil events that occurred during the war.”The private thoughts and spoken words attributed to Leo in The Dark Arena testify not just to the serious talent of young Mario Puzo, but to the damage imparted by those “who had kept [Leo’s] youth behind barbed wire, burned a number into his arm that he would carry to his grave, killed his father, made his mother flee into the night thousands of miles away, robbing her mind of the co-ordination necessary to live so that finally a time had come when she had died because she could not sleep, literally could not sleep.”

–(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published by Heliotrope Books last October. He is completing a biography of Mario Puzo.)